Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Singing at the Peace Memorial, May 30th, 2011

Photo by Debby Preiser

My husband John and I have occasionally had the honor of singing in Oak Park’s Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day services which are always held in Scoville Park. The focal point and “stage” for these events is always the “Peace Triumphant” sculpture that was built to honor the 2,446 Oak Park and River Forest citizens who participated in “The Great War.” Dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1925, the memorial recently underwent a refurbishing and was re-dedicated in a ceremony last November.

On this past Memorial Day, we were honored to sing beside the war memorial for the first time since its refurbishing and we had a wonderful time, not just because the statutes had been restored to their former bronzed glory. Something special happened during this service, something so momentous and moving that I feel compelled to attempt to explain the inexplicable.

It might have something to do with Ginny Cassin, who opened the ceremonies. Ginny is an octogenarian who has been significantly involved with Oak Park’s government and the local Ernest Hemingway Foundation for decades. She’s the type of person who honestly esteems everyone she meets and, in some magical way, when she opens any ceremony, she immediately imbues it with a higher amount of value than it would have had otherwise.

Or perhaps it was Redd Griffin’s speech, which, as usual, was erudite and substantive. This time, during his history of Memorial Day (initially called Decoration Day, utilized to “decorate” the graves of those lost in the Civil War) he used the street running in front of the park – Lake Street – to make a connection with the 151st anniversary of Lincoln’s 1860 Republican nomination, which took place a few miles directly east from where we were standing. He also movingly and clearly stated the difference between a twisted fascination for war and an admiration for those willing to face it.

Perhaps the event was extra meaningful in part because of the songs we were asked to sing. John and I are already familiar with the spontaneous audience participation that tends to accompany a performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (when we perform our “Songs of the Civil War” program). This audience had pre-printed words in front of them but still, I always wonder what it is about this song that is so particularly moving. Perhaps it’s what John always says in his intro: after the Civil War was over, Americans wanted to believe that the immense cost had served some higher purpose; that something new had been born from a conflict which had taken so many lives. While singing “Battle Hymn” one can nearly catch a glimpse of that higher purpose.

I love singing the national anthem, always have, probably always will, so was thrilled to have another opportunity to do so at the Memorial Service on Monday, feeling, as I always do, nearly akin to Paul Henreid in Rick’s CafĂ©, leading a group of French patriots in a passionate rendition of their forbidden national song. Alright, that’s a little over the top, but it comes close, cinematically-speaking, to describing the thrill I feel whenever I lead the singing for “The Star Spangled Banner.” While doing so I can nearly see the poet Francis Scott Key yearning for a glimpse of Old Glory and all that it represents: a near-miraculous and idealistic attempt to create a new nation, which ended up racking up a long list of wrongs – because human beings tend to be flawed – but also became a beacon of light and hope to oppressed people around the world. When I get to the part where the singer asks if the banner yet waves, I really mean it. If it does continue – and the reason it currently waves – is because of the vets who have been willing to fight for it.

The invocation given by Pastor Schreiner was the best Memorial Day prayer I’ve ever heard, one that pointedly focused on the reason for the day: the sacrifices that young men and women have made for this country. She not only mentioned those who had lost their lives in direct conflict with the enemy but also vets who have been permanently damaged by their war experiences, including those who took their own lives as a result. Words rarely suffice to fully articulate the loss of a single life but she came very close and in a very short amount of time.

Perhaps the show of hands made this Memorial Day service particularly moving. It hadn’t been entirely clear how many vets were present until Oak Park president David Pope asked them to identify themselves and the conflict they’d been part of. As far as I could hear, veterans from Viet Nam, Korea, and WWII were all present and from our vantage point at the base of the memorial, John and I could see them all.

One of them – a Viet Nam vet, I think – came up to us afterwards and told us this had been his favorite among many Memorial Day services because of our singing, so much so that he was sure there was a special place in heaven for us. I couldn’t help thinking the same thing about him. Thank you, veterans of the United States.

The history of Memorial Day.

An article from December, 1925, regarding the original “Peace Triumphant” memorial.

Ginny Cassin, speaking at the rededication ceremony of the “Peace Triumphant” memorial, November, 2010.

Redd Griffin, speaking at the rededication ceremony of the “Peace Triumphant” memorial, November, 2010.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Long and Winding Road of the Gershwins' "The Man I Love"

One of my favorite performance songs is “The Man I Love,” Gershwin’s classic, haunting melody about the longing for an unmet lover. It’s always something of a challenge for me to perform because as a vocalist first and foremost, it’s a bit tough to focus entirely on my singing while making sure not to hit a wrong group of keys on the piano. But it’s worth every minute of angst because the song is simply gorgeous. It’s not as descriptive, lyrics-wise, as the other similar Gershwin hit, “Someone to Watch over Me,” whose protagonist tells us that the guy who will hold the key to her heart needn’t be “the man some girls think of as handsome.” The speaker/singer in “The Man I Love” has no particular picture in her mind except the possible day they’ll meet -- “maybe Tuesday will be my good news day” -- and what they’ll do: “he’ll look at me and smile, I’ll understand/And in a little while, he’ll take my hand/And though it seems absurd, I know we both won’t say a word.” A little vague, sure, but that's what makes dreamy love songs dreamy and, coupled with the beautiful melodic line, it makes this one nearly breathtakingly emotive.

So it may come as a surprise to realize that this song nearly died at birth, or at least shortly thereafter. Here is a breakdown of the song’s close brush with obscurity:

1. It was written in 1924 by the Gershwin brothers.
2. Fred Astaire’s sister, Adele, debuted it during the Philadelphia production of “Lady Be Good.” The song was excised after one week.
3. Lady Mountbatten requested Gershwin’s autograph on her personal copy of the song’s sheet music (printed in the lobby of the theater during try-outs), took it back to London and gave it to her favorite band.
4. It became popular with London and Paris-based dance orchestras.
5. In August of 1927, it was placed into a production of “Strike up the Band” which played in New Jersey and Philly but then closed quickly.
6. The producer of “Strike up the Band” let Flo Ziegfeld use the song in “Rosalie.” Ira rewrote the song twice for that production.
7. The Gershwin’s publisher convinced the brothers to take a reduced royalty rate before he published and exploited the song to his advantage. The song became wildly popular and the publisher became richer.

While the world of music publishing is filled with stories of advantage-seeking publishers, there are very few songs whose road to fame have taken such a winding trek as “The Man I Love,” a song that was one of George Gershwin’s personal favorites.

“American Popular Song” by Alex Wilder
“All the Years of American Popular Song” by Davis Ewen

"The House that George Built: With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty" Book Review

There are several ways in which to write a book on the subject of classic American popular song. One would be to collect a set of interviews when most of the main players – or their associates and progeny – are still alive. That’s the route Max Wilk took in 1974 with They’re Playing Our Song.

Another way would be to dissect the music in a theoretic yet accessible way, showing the reader exactly what made each song tick. That is what Alec Wilder did in his score-filled American Popular Song.

But by far the most effective approach would be this: live through the musical era which produced Star Dust, Blue Skies and The Man I Love as a musically sentient individual, absorbing every note through your pores. Next, develop into an extraordinarily talented music critic and novelist. Then live long enough to develop a sharp and seasoned sense of historical context in which to place the whole thing and – finally – pour it all into a single book.

That is what Wilfrid Sheed has done in his enormously entertaining tome, The House That George Built. A winning combination of insightful musical history and penetrating biography couched in cracklingly witty prose, The House That George Built is a brilliantly original opus which – aside from an occasional reference to another work – borrows very little from its predecessors.

While Sheed devotes entire chapters to all the major artists of the era (and even includes an appendix which contains one paragraph each of lesser-known composers – i.e., the “Crew of Fifty”), his central character – as trumpeted in the book’s title -- is George Gershwin, that amalgam of the classical and popular, who Sheed contends was the indisputable watershed composer of the era.

Wrapping one’s brain around the anomaly that was George Gershwin is a challenge but one that Sheed manages beautifully. He spills gallons of ink on Gershwin’s unique talent, of course, but he also spends a great deal of time debunking the fallacy that Gershwin was an egomaniac, giving myriad examples of Gershwin actively helping younger composers (and basically anyone) within his reach. Along the way, Sheed paints a fascinating portrait of a brilliant and hyperactively gifted individual who practically dared death to catch up with him.

The House That George Built contains a plethora of penetrating insights which are often couched in outrageously piquant images. For instance, in attempting to explain the phenomenal talent of Irving Berlin – a composer who could hardly play the piano – Sheed explains that “it was like someone learning to dance with a booklet in his hand telling him where to put his feet. But this is where the miracle kicks in, for the novice suddenly begins to dance like Fred Astaire.”

Divided into five main sections entitled The Piano Era, Consequences–The Great Jazz Songwriters, The Stage–Broadway Swings, Hollywood–The Sugar Daddy and Survival on Broadway–The Curtain Won’t Stay Down and devoting a chapter each to all the major composers from Arlen to Van Heusen, The House That George Built is a compelling and delightfully insightful read on what is arguably the most melodically rich era of American popular song.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Rockabilly: The Twang Heard 'Round the World" Book Review

Rockabilly, loosely defined as the white man’s first foray into rock and roll during the mid- to late-1950’s, gets a visual blast from Voyageur Press’s new book on the subject. Written by multiple authors, the book features in-depth biographical chapters on all the big names of the genre -- Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis – but it also includes shorter chapters on Rockabilly’s lesser-known players (and the guitars they played – really).

Sam Phillips was the man who initially recorded it all in his tiny Memphis-based Sun Records studio and the book features dozens of close-up shots of his records. In fact, the book contains so many stunning visuals – studio photos, live concert shots, concert advertisement posters, sheet music covers, tickets – that the era nearly jumps off each page.

The history of Rockabilly is fraught with drama and this book captures some of those moments. For instance, in describing what many believe to be the genre’s birth -- Elvis’s recording of “That’s All Right Mama” at Sam Phillips’ place -- the book quotes someone who was there, Scotty Moore, who told the following story in a 1955 interview: “Elvis started clowning around. Just picked up his guitar and started kibitzing, singing “That’s All Right” and clowning around the studio dancing, just cutting up in general, and Bill picked up his bass, started slapping it and clowning also . . . I joined in with just a rhythm vamp. Sam was in the control room, the door was open. He came out and said, ‘What are y’all doing?’ We said ‘We don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, see if you can do it again the same way. Let’s put it on tape, see what it sounds like.’”

The book also portrays a dramatic moment in the life of Rockabilly great, Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”). Although on the verge of having a hit song, Perkins had no available cash to buy Christmas presents for his children and went to pick cotton in order to do so: “As he drove toward the Jackson city limits, he hated himself, hated his life, hated what he had to do, hated that all his years of hard work had brought him back to a cotton field. About ten miles out of town he parked, took a sack off a wagon, and headed out to pick from daybreak to sunset, “from can to can’t,” in the picker’s lexicon.

As Carl made his way down a row, he felt the other picker’s eyes boring in on him. ‘You look like that sanger,’ drawled on of the older ones . . .”

U.S. Rockabilly came to an end somewhere in the late 50’s (the book provides three possible death dates) but chapter seven opens with the words “In Europe, Rockabilly lived on while it died back home.” Rockabilly was revered outside the U.S. (which shouldn’t surprise any Beatles scholars since the Fab Four chose their name with Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets, in mind). The book also provides a chapter on the Rockabilly Renaissance of the 1980’s with the advent of the U.S.-born Stray Cats.

The book doesn’t precisely define Rockabilly but to define any American musical genre with the printed page alone is nearly impossible. The best thing for the uninitiated is a trip to You Tube with a list of classic Rockabilly titles in hand (see below). But for those who already have Rockabilly hits playing in their heads, the book’s interviews, biographies, and photos will be sure to fill in some information gaps while providing a stunning visual treat.